Friday 5 October 2012

Rugby vs relay in KM - modes of knowledge transfer

The metaphor of a relay race is often used in Knowledge Management. Knowledge is seen as a baton that is passed from a runner (project team), after they have finished their leg (project) to another runner (project team) that is just starting. Knowledge transfer is serial - from one, then to the next, then to the next. This is what I refer to here as "serial transfer" of knowledge. This is supported well by lessons learned systems, and by knowledge handover (which Pfizer called "baton passing" in a direct reference to the relay run).

 Nonaka and Takeuchi contrast this with the Rugby metaphor, where the whole team runs forward, passing the ball to and fro between them. When one player meets an obstruction, they seek to pass the ball to another, who tries to find a way through. By sharing small advances, the whole team moves forwards.

 In some ways this is a much better metaphor for many organisations, where the aim is to make progress on all fronts, and where knowledge is shared between the different divisions an the different teams like a rugby ball, and little gains in knowledge from one part of the business are combined with little gains from another part, so that everyone advances together, rather than in series. The ball is always passed backwards - from leader to follower - but the roles of leader and follower are always changing, depending on who made the breakthrough. I referred to this as "synchronous transfer", and this is supported by communities of practice and knowledge exchange and "learning while doing" rather than "learning after doing".

If you are unfamiliar with rugby, see the masterclass demonstration below, which begins with just that display of passing the ball from hand to hand until the breakthrough is made.


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